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Christie's Plans Moscow Office Catering to Rich Russian Buyers

Katya Kazakina, Bloomberg.Com

Christie's International, the world's largest auction house, plans to open its first office in Russia as the country's wealthy buyers play an increasingly important role in the booming global art market.

The new branch, scheduled to open by the end of the year, will be in Moscow, though the auction house hasn't made a final decision on the location, Ellen Berkeley, Christie's director of business development in Europe, said in an interview.

Sotheby's, the world's No. 2 auction house and a fierce rival to Christie's, opened a Moscow office in May.

Russia, now in its ninth year of economic growth, is the world's second-biggest oil exporter. The number of Russian billionaires jumped to 53 in 2007 from seven in 2002, according to Forbes magazine, which estimated the group's collective worth at $282 billion. Russia has more billionaires than any other country except the U.S. and Germany, Forbes said.

Anna Belorusova, Christie's consultant in Russia for the past 12 years, will head the Moscow branch, Berkeley said. Belorusova will focus on cultivating clients, getting consignments and arranging private sales.

Christie's, however, will not hold auctions in Moscow.

''I just can't imagine having sales in Russia,'' said the London-based Berkeley. ''Russian law changes dramatically. The structure isn't really in place.''

Russian collectors ''are connoisseurs now,'' Berkeley said. ''They know exactly what they want,'' with Russian, Impressionist and modern art topping the list.

Icons and Silver

Russian collectors are eyeing other areas of art ranging from Japanese swords to Asian figurines, Berkeley said. ''There is a lot of interest in the ornate,'' such as French and German furniture, icons, porcelain and silver, she added.

The interest in decorative arts stems from a trend in lavish home decor among wealthy Russians. ''They love entertaining,'' Berkeley said. ''Their wives have got endless amounts of time.''

Christie's said its sales of Russian art increased more than sevenfold between 2000 and 2006. In the first half of 2007, the auction house sold $69 million worth of Russian art worldwide. The house took in $70.5 million for Russian art for all of 2006.

Sotheby's said its Russian art sales have risen more than 20-fold since 2000, totaling $153.5 million in 2006. So far this year, Sotheby's Russian art sales have totaled $107.2 million.

Christie's ties with Russia date to the late 18th century. In one private sale, Russia's Empress Catherine the Great bought works by Rubens and Rembrandt for the Hermitage museum.

Public Consumption

In recent years, Christie's has worked with Russian museums and companies to bring works of art to Russia for public display ahead of the auction house's sales in London and New York.

In March, a painting by 19th-century Russian realist Vasilii Vereshchagin was shown at Moscow's State Tretyakov Gallery. The work had never been shown in Russia until then. In April, it fetched $3.6 million at Christie's auction in New York.

Last November, Christie's used a gallery owned by Leonid V. Mikhelson, chief executive officer of OAO Novatek, Russia's largest independent natural-gas company, to exhibit more than 20 Russian artworks from Christie's London sale that same month. ''We had 5,000 visitors in one weekend,'' Berkeley said. ''They were queuing around the block.''

Christie's has 85 offices in 43 countries, and 14 salesrooms around the world, including New York, London, Los Angeles, Paris, Geneva and Hong Kong.

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